Back from Sydney with memories, but no gold
Oct. 25, 2000
Peggy Vaughn
Staff Writer

Galen A. Lentz/The Gazette

Coach Kelli Hill watches as students practice the balance beam at her Gaithersburg gym. Hill was one coach of the 2000 U.S. Women's Olympic gymnastic team.

Gymnastics coach Kelli Hill returns to Gaithersburg to train future Olympians

Olympic gymnastics coach Kelli Hill is back home in Gaithersburg again after experiencing one of the most tumultuous Olympics ever for American women gymnasts.

The 2000 U.S. Women's team she helped coach did not bring a single medal home from Sydney. But for the 41-year-old three-time Olympic coach, collecting medals isn't what the Olympics is entirely about.

"You can't set your heart on the Olympics, but you can set your heart on gymnastics," Hill said. "I thoroughly enjoyed the sport of gymnastics and the joy of working with my athletes."

However disappointing the outcome of the competition, Hill returned home with some life-long memories of a remarkable country.

"Australia is beautiful," Hill said. "After the [competition], we flew north to the city of Cairns for a few days of snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef."

From the outset, the odds were against the team bringing home anything more than good memories, she said.

"We knew if we'd take any medals, it'd be a bronze," Hill said. "We figured we'd place fourth, but had a chance if another team was struggling. As it happened, no other team was struggling."

Placing fourth behind Romania, Russia and China was a disappointment, but nothing compared to the horror the team felt as gymnast after gymnast was distracted vaulting over a horse mistakenly set two inches too low.

"The equipment being set wrong during the day of the all-around individual finals was something I'll never forget," Hill said. "The [Olympic officials] should have started it all over again. They apologized publicly ... but by that point in time [the gymnasts] had lost it. They felt they'd lost the race."

As personal coach of three-time Olympic medalist Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring and national champion Elise Ray of Columbia, Hill speaks with confidence when she says winning an Olympic medal is not what keeps athletes dedicated to the sport.

"There's only six slots on the Olympic team," she said. "It's such a luck of the draw [depending on] who's healthy and who's competing as to who ends up at the Olympics. It's a passion for the sport that keeps you in it."

Hill discovered her passion for the sport while growing up the youngest of four children in a Navy family that settled in Silver Spring when she was nine.

"I'd always loved [watching gymnastics]," she said. "I took a paper route and started paying for lessons for myself in junior high school at Marva Tots and Teens in Rockville. I competed in gymnastics in junior and senior high. I was never very good, but I loved it."

After graduating in 1977 from Montgomery Blair High School, she pursued a physical education degree at University of Maryland in College Park until an offer came up she couldn't refuse.

"I was just short my student teaching experience before graduation when I bought the Marva Tots and Teens [gym] in Wheaton in 1981," Hill said. "It was something I had set my heart on, owning a gym and teaching gymnastics. The previous owner financed me. She thought I could handle it. I was gutsy."

And at 41, Hill was also successful. Ten years later, she opened a second, larger gym in Gaithersburg called Hill's Gym. More than 1,100 students of all ages attend recreational, weekly classes there while another 120 students work in teams doing more advanced gymnastics.

The Gaithersburg mother of two teen-aged sons, who Hill said are football players and not gymnasts, travels to one or two gymnastic competitions each month with a core of eight "elite" athletes from her gym.

"It's not like it was in my day," Hill said. "Kids train much more seriously now. I have kids spending as much as 35 hours a week here training."

She bought the larger gym in Gaithersburg to house the additional equipment needed to train Olympic-quality gymnasts, she said.

"It was a choice between buying a summer house and opening a new gym," she said. "But in 1992 I was bound and determined to put this little girl in the Olympics."

That little girl, Dominique Dawes, is now a recognized name when it comes to Olympic gymnastics. But at the time, Dawes was just six years old and already showing she had the potential to be an Olympic champion.

"You knew she had the physical [ability]," Hill said. "What you didn't know is if she had the will to compete. Interests change as kids get older and that's the unknown."

Under Hill's guidance, Dawes went on to win a bronze medal in team finals in the 1992 Olympics, and four years later, Olympic gold for team efforts and a bronze in individual competition.

Now nearing her 24th birthday, which is considered an advanced age in a sport dominated by young teens, Dawes qualified for the Olympics despite starting intense training in April. Hopes were high, though, for Hill's other protege, Elise Ray.

But the American team has yet to recover from the retirement of most of its star athletes after the 1996 Olympics. The team placed sixth in the 1999 World Championships and the appointment of famed, but autocratic Romanian coach Bela Karolyi as "team coordinator" did not improve matters, Hill said.

"We went from a system of each [athlete] having a personal coach to a centralized system like they have in other countries," she said. "[Karolyi] came in less than a year ago. You ended up with the best of neither program."

Still, Hill said no team tried harder or learned more at the games than the "inexperienced" American team.

"In reality, we placed where we should have placed and the kids did a good job," Hill said. "Everyone's apologizing but we did a good job."